How Agile Is Changing the Way the Federal Government Does Business

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John Gilroy, host of the weekly radio show Federal Tech Talk, recently got a chance to chat with Bob Monahan, a business unit director for the technology-sourcing company Dynamics Research Corporation (DRC). DRC specializes in software development and management consulting for both public and private customers.

Gilroy and Monahan talked about the way government interacts with private companies who use agile and the difficulty in aligning DRC’s iterative development process with government’s traditional waterfall approach. According to Monahan, the two biggest obstacles are procurement and collaboration.

Government procurement is based on a request for proposal (RFP), which typically contains detailed requirements for what is to be delivered and when. A traditional waterfall approach fits nicely with the government procurement process, and since RFPs rely heavily on detailed specifications, specific checks points, and a fixed delivery date, these types of proposals are good matches for waterfall. Conversely, agile shares none of these traits.

Monahan explains that DRC works to sell different agencies on the benefits of agile. Gilroy points out that the philosophy of “fail early, fail often” would be a difficult sell in the DoD, but Monahan argues it is better than “failing big." He also states it is a better methodology for focusing on “the mission.”

Using iterations to receive user feedback prevents the project from getting off course, and the team can continually refocus on the most important items. Waterfall projects are not evaluated on quality of delivery until the end; agile projects are evaluated at the end of each sprint.

Prioritizing allows an agency to write the RFP so that it is broken into pieces. The development team can then deliver in small chunks so that any failure is small and easily corrected. DRC helps agencies break their RFPs down into these smaller more manageable pieces.

The other big issue discussed by Monahan is collaboration, which is key to successful agile projects. Having all the different business units on the team and working in close proximity is critical. Obviously government projects can require security clearances, which can restrict team participants and location.

Monahan agrees this is a very high hurdle to overcome. In order to get all the necessary people on the team, he works directly with defense agencies to help them understand the importance of collaboration to the project’s success.

Government agencies and contractors are trying to transform their processes to align with agile development. I have seen agile overcome bureaucracy in the private sector, and it can do the same for government. But as DRC’s experience has shown, there are still many tall mountains to climb.

As an IT/agile professional, do you think there is any hope that government can change?

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Steve Vaughn

Steve Vaughn is a twenty-year survivor of the IT wars. He has worked a variety of organizations as a software developer, architect, and ScrumMaster. Steve has spent the past five years attempting the impossiblemanaging software developers. He is now using this experience to act as an agile coach and help develop high-performing teams.